Skip to main content

Stop shipping volatile oil by rail

By Wayde Schafer, Special to CNN
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
Most of the 73-car train derailed in Lac-Megantic; cars full of oil exploded and burned.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wayde Schafer: Many communities have rail lines running right through them
  • Schafer: North Dakota crude oil loaded onto trains causes a tragedy in Canada
  • N.D. oil production rose by 10 times since 2011, more and and heavier trains needed
  • It's too dangerous, he says. Trains go through towns and weren't designed for oil

Editor's note: Wayde Schafer is the organizing representative of the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club.

(CNN) -- The tragedy of the train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, has brought home just how small our world has become. Oil that was drilled in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields is loaded onto rail cars and passes through a small Canadian community and shatters their world in an instant. All my thoughts and best wishes go out to the families and emergency responders in the midst of this human and environmental catastrophe.

Everyone is touched by this man-made disaster -- 20 killed, 30 missing -- because so many communities have a rail line running right through the middle of town. Here in North Dakota, like all over the U.S. and Canada, towns grew up around the railroad lines. They brought people in to help settle the state and shipped the farm and manufacturing products to other parts of the world.

But the increase in the amount of volatile crude oil being transported by rail from North Dakota's Bakken fields has brought a new and troubling set of problems to the debate about our continued dependency on fossil fuels, and particularly oil, as an energy source.

Railroad engineers did not have transporting oil in mind when they laid out the routes. They did not avoid population centers, rivers, or environmentally sensitive areas. They were only concerned with getting from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner possible. In fact, trains carrying oil tanker cars run just two blocks from my office, right through the heart of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Rail is the most efficient way to move freight, and Sierra Club is a big fan of rail for transporting people and conventional freight. But moving extreme fossil fuels, like Bakken shale or Alberta tar sands, is a different story entirely.

These fuels are "extreme" because they are more toxic and more carbon intensive than conventional oil. They are also more dangerous to transport than conventional sources of oil. Production in the Bakken fields has increased nearly 10 times since 2011. To move all this crude, oil rail companies are running longer, heavier trains. And they are running them farther than ever before, bringing crude to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

The regulatory framework for train safety wasn't designed for crude oil trains, and the rail and safety infrastructure is out of date and not up to the task. A state transportation safety spokesman in Maine this week said that the Lac-Magantic disaster is "on the same parallel as a tractor-trailer accident. It's private commerce and we don't get involved." This catastrophe proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the transportation of Bakken shale requires much more vigilant oversight.

It's too early to draw conclusions from the ongoing catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, but there's one simple lesson that we should not ignore. Bakken shale, tar sands, and other extreme fossil fuels threaten our towns and our communities. We can't afford the additional cost, in safety or pollution that these fuels bring. And with growing efficiency and with renewable sources of energy, we don't need them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wayde Schafer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT